A Ridiculous Essay on Rational Outreach

“I don’t think we should go out of our way to insult Islam because it doesn’t do any good to get your head cut off. But we should always say that I may refrain from publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, but it’s because I fear you. Don’t for one moment think it’s because I respect you.”

-Richard Dawkins, 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne.

Fear can be quite an effective motivator when it comes to silencing your critics. Make people ask if the consequences of speaking out are worth the trouble and you’ll find the voices of your opposition will fade from the public stage. But as Dawkins noted, the quiet fear of retribution is not the same as respectful silence.

Perhaps the more aggressive of the Islamic fundamentalists care little for having their position respected by anybody, let alone a kafir like Dawkins; fear-induced submission, regardless of the cost, could be their goal. If it is, they can claim a resounding success.

Those within the ‘rationalist surge’ communities of atheism, feminism and skepticism are currently debating a parallel situation. Phil Plait presented a speech at TAM 8 that spoke against the use of mockery and ridicule when it comes to conversing with believers.

When it comes to communicating on topics relevant to the group’s interests, should we endeavour to curtail our passion-fuelled frustration, or is ridicule and mockery an appropriate response to some ideas? The answer, of course, is complicated and contextual, depending entirely on one’s intentions.

Why are we talking?

Why do we talk? I’d suggest it was to be heard, and possibly understood and even have our view appreciated.

Let’s clump all possible intentions behind a person’s desire to communicate into a blunt dichotomy – self-gratification and non self-gratification. In other words, you’re either engaging with somebody because it makes you feel good or you’re doing it in an effort to change somebody’s mind (including the possibility of changing your own position). For current purposes we can completely ignore the first category on the grounds of being self-evident in its results – if mocking others makes you feel good, then mission accomplished. We can say it’s effective. Of course, it raises questions on whether ridiculing somebody for selfish reasons is morally reprehensible, but as to whether it can be considered contextually appropriate, the answer is a clear ‘yes’.

That leaves us with communication for non-selfish reasons; there is a desire to influence the behaviour of other people. Again, there is a dichotomy we can invoke here – there are those who are product-driven and those who are process-driven.

‘Product’ in this case describes a practical change. That might involve anything from making certain acts illegal or encouraging the removal of disagreeable products from shelves. The way this is achieved could involve the extreme of lying to people so they’ll believe you, to a more mundane gentle social coercion. In short, product-driven communicators are less concerned about the ‘how’ than they are about the ‘what’, whether it is for people to not to believe in God, not to have alternative medicine available to the community or to make it illegal for businesses not to have a certain number of women on their board.

Process-driven communication is about changing the way people arrive at their conclusions, hopefully leading them to make decisions more compatible with a shared set of values. It’s the difference embodied by the idiom ‘teach a person to fish’, as opposed to simply giving them a poached halibut for their supper.

While both categories might ultimately desire the same outcomes – such as a community where people opt for chemotherapy over homeopathy or where God isn’t thanked for life-saving operations – each faction desires this to be achieved in subtly different ways. And although it is a dichotomy for the purposes of this discussion, few can place themselves solidly in either category for all situations. Being process-driven does not make one a hardcore anarchist where government laws are anathema. Likewise, being product-driven doesn’t mean a complete disregard for the need for promoting good thinking skills.

Yet variation in opinion holds enough within any group that individuals will go about achieving their outcomes in subtly different ways, depending on whether the process or the product is considered to be more important. For example, product-driven communicators might target a shop owner and petition them to remove a product from their shelves. A process-driven communicator might explain to the public through a campaign or a media outlet how that product is defective, offensive or ineffective. Each will employ different communication strategies depending on their ultimate goal.

This is ridiculous!

Before we look at the impact of ridicule in achieving either process-driven or product-driven objectives, it is important to define the behaviour in question.

Essentially, any communication that is intended to cause an audience to associate the holding of a particular opinion with a sense of shame, embarrassment, fear, subservience or any other oppressive sentiment can (for the intentions of this essay) be described as mockery or ridicule. It’s obvious that some people will feel offended by any form of non-complimentary feedback, lending people to conflate ridicule with any criticism; ridicule, however, can be considered to be defined by the communicator’s intentions rather than the audience’s reaction.

Ridicule can be spontaneous or it can be carefully crafted. It can take the form of clever sarcasm or witless insults. It might attack a person directly or be implied indirectly. It might be easy to spot or worded in a way that somebody might weasel out of it later if they come under fire. However it is presented, ridicule is a form of aggressive behaviour that aims to reduce a person’s confidence in an idea using emotional manipulation.

The target need not always be the person who presents the idea, either. For any act of communication, there can often be the hidden audience – lurkers, fence-sitters and the non-committed. While many forms of communication might for all purposes appear to be localised between two parties, it’s typically understood that there are additional audiences who are passively involved. Ridiculing an idea can just as easily be intended to emotionally challenge those on the sidelines into changing or reinforcing their behaviour, siding with your views over theirs.

So, does it work? Will ridicule influence your audience? Yes…and no. It primarily depends on who your audience is.

Poles apart

Unfortunately research on aggressive language as an effective means of outreach in rationalist grassroots communities is rather thin. No specific study provides us with an insight into how ridicule might effectively address irrational beliefs. The best we can manage is to extrapolate from the small amount of research done in relative fields on similar topics.

Arguably a good place to start might be a concept in sociology referred to as ‘impression management’ (IM) – the theoretical processes we use when we try to influence how others see things. This can cover everything from how supermarkets will display their stock to whether a politician wears a red or a blue tie to a debate.

According to contemporary IM theories, this behaviour comes in three varieties, depending on the method of communication –

  • Ingratiation: Encouraging compliance in others through attempting to inspire good feelings
  • Supplication: Encouraging cooperation, empathy or dominance in another through appearing weaker or submissive
  • Intimidation: Encouraging submission in others through appearing stronger[1]

The American sociologist Erving Goffman theorised in his text ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ that goals are best met when there is congruence between our choice of method and the perception we wish people to have[2]. Wanting people to like you by intimidating them won’t work very well, in other words.

More specifically, the sociologist Richard Felson has applied IM theory to aggressive communication[3], concluding that intimidating behaviour might be an effort to reinstate one’s identity in a situation following a perceived threat or ‘attack’. Hence when we encounter something we feel is not just wrong but detrimental or incomprehensible (or just plain silly), our response is to meet the threat aggressively to re-establish a sense of perspective that we’ve felt has been lost.

While it isn’t the only theory addressing the role of aggression in communication, IM has some strong evidence supporting its propositions. It goes some way towards explaining why people might employ the use of ridicule even if it is found to be otherwise completely ineffective in achieving their communication goal.

A few pedagogical investigations have addressed the role of ridicule and mockery as a form of classroom management. Perhaps surprisingly, there is evidence supporting the use of insults and sarcasm as an educational corrective, encouraging commitment to a particular activity (such as reading a text)[4], but mostly for children over the age of six[5] but before mid-adolescence[6]. The fear of humiliation appears to be enough to motivate children into applying themselves to simple tasks. There is a counter to this approach as a recommended classroom management tool, where ridicule and social isolation can have a detrimental impact on student confidence and self-esteem, however it is indeed evidence demonstrating that if the goal is purely to motivate young students to engage, it is effective.

On the other hand, as students develop, aggressive language seems to lose its motivational quality. For instance, there is a negative correlation between the amount of aggressive language (including swearing, ridicule and teasing) used by a college instructor and the young adult student’s affect towards course content[7]. It appears that as the social dynamics change with the onset of adolescence the threat of ridicule diminishes and it becomes associated with incompetence rather than authority.

Perhaps the most relevant study in this regard is one that coins the term ‘jeer pressure’ in examining the effects ridicule on third parties has on conformity[8]. Put simply, the act of seeing others being ridiculed is enough to encourage conformity. Not only is the humiliation itself effective – retaliation is seen as a sign of weakness, making it difficult to respond to. Given that most forms of criticism are typically enough for people to withdraw from contributing to a group discussion, this is hardly surprising at all[9].

So, ridicule appears to be an effective way of discouraging free thought and maintaining beliefs held by a social group, especially amongst groups of children. Other research on this topic only goes further in supporting how adult groups use isolation or humiliation to encourage conformity[10], where ‘reactions to ingroup deviants are … based on an individual-protection motive, namely the desire to distance oneself from unfavorable others in order to reduce the likelihood that one will be associatively miscast.’ (Pinto et al, 2010). In the context of discouraging individual thoughts, encouraging group-think and conformity, ridicule is extremely effective. Threat of humiliation within a group makes it difficult for ‘black sheep’ thinking to persist, thereby maintaining an illusion of being an effective way of promoting a particular set of values.

Yet what of those external to a particular social group? What of those who couldn’t care less about whether they’re accepted as part of the fold? Unfortunately the evidence for using aggressive language, ridicule and mockery as a means of communicating with people outside of your own clique (whether this is a student in a classroom or a visitor on an internet forum) isn’t very supportive.

A 1992 communications study by a leading researcher in the field of aggression and communication – Dominic Infante – looked into situations where argumentativeness and verbal aggression occurred together, and found that the more aggressive the speaker, the less credible they were deemed to be and less able to appear to present a valid argument[11]. Other studies have found that third party observers of arguments perceive greater levels of aggression and less credibility of parties who engage in even ‘light’ aggressive tactics[12]. Another study investigating argument progression within paired speakers found verbal aggression was inversely associated with the proportion of arguments[13]. Far from being conducive to discussions on controversial issues, aggressive language reduces desire for verbal interaction and impedes the depth of what is being discussed.

None of this is perhaps surprising when seen in the light of a sociological phenomenon called ‘group polarisation’. The theory states that social groups of contrasting beliefs or ideals will tend to reinforce their differences when engaging in discussion. A feature of confirmation bias, it essentially means we have a tendency to find reasons to reinforce our beliefs when we come together in groups to make decisions[14]. This occurs to such a great extent we’ll re-negotiate risks, taking bigger gambles than we would alone (referred to as ‘risky shifts’). Aggressive behaviour only further polarises the situation, exacerbating the existing phenomenon.

Be rid of ridicule?

What can we conclude from this sample of research? Several things.

Grassroots rationalist groups who engage in any form of communication with the public might want to seek, contribute to and encourage research into the results of their outreach efforts. Given we know relatively little about the impacts of various forms of public communication, knowing which efforts are useful, which are useless and which are damaging is invaluable for groups who don’t have the resources to waste on getting it wrong or the luxury of losing potential audience members.

Secondly, there is evidence supporting the use of aggressive language such as ridicule only under limited contexts. Those contexts seem to conflict with what one might presume to be ‘rationalist’ values – endeavours that arguably promote freedom of thought over indulging in group-think and critical thinking over conformity. However, if those goals are product-driven, where success is measured not by how people think but by the pressure a group can exhibit on a key demographic, ridicule and mockery just might work. Humiliating the right targets could well create conformity and result in laws being changed, products being removed from shelves, people being fired or hired from influential positions…and so on. For product-driven rationalists, there is some wiggle-room in arguing for the use of ridicule.

Lastly, if the goal is to encourage those from diverse communities to think critically and to cooperate in order find ways of limiting the impact of poor thinking on individuals and the community, then ridicule is a poor choice of communication. At best it further polarises the issues, prompting those you’re trying to communicate with to reinforce their poor thinking skills while doing little to help them think logically. At worst, it prompts third parties to view your argument as comparatively uninformed, potentially isolating individuals who might otherwise be reached by a less aggressive approach.

Of course many people are far beyond changing their epistemology and can be expected to indulge in spreading irrational beliefs regardless of any attempts to ‘educate’ them or change their views. Some might argue there is no harm in ridicule in those cases. Yet there are two responses to that – certainty is for politicians and priests (not those of rational minds). How certain can a person ever be that they ‘know’ their audience is permanently beyond reach? There is less harm in simply ignoring a person out of the possibility that one day they might be more inclined to change their values by somebody who is better skilled at communication; and there are always more reasonable third parties who, out of sympathy for your target, might find it difficult to distinguish the reason from your ridicule.

Unfortunately the playing field isn’t a simple one necessarily capable of supporting many different methods. One rationalist’s actions can make another’s attempts at communication more difficult at achieving success. One person’s insults under the banner of ‘rational thought’ can paint others in a dark light. Promoting scientific and rational values in the wider community is by no means a simple affair, and will take time and effort. The last thing we can afford to do is make it harder purely out of an emotional desire to mock and belittle those who don’t agree. We might be able to aggressively manipulate some into accepting we’re right. But to borrow from Dawkins, using emotional manipulation to elicit submission is not the same as encouraging people to submit to the discussion respectfully. I, personally, would much rather focus on encouraging others to identify irrational beliefs for themselves than waste time and energy on ridiculing the ridiculous.


[1] Schlenker, B., (1980), Impression Management: The Self-Concept, Social Identity, and Interpersonal Relations, Krieger Pub Co

[2] Goffman, E (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Doubleday: Garden City

[3] Felson , RB, (1978), Aggression as Impression Management, Social Psychology, 41:3, pp. 205-213

[4] Bryants, J., Brown D., Parks S.L., (1981), Ridicule as an educational corrective, Journal of Educational Psychology, 73(5): 722-727

[5] Jennings, B., (1981), The Effect of Ridiculing a Model on Children’s Imitation of Televised Instruction, presented at the Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association

[6] Myers S.A., Knox R.L., (1999) Verbal aggression in the college classroom: Perceived instructor use and student affective learning, Communication Studies, 47(1): pp 33

[7] Myers S.A., Knox R.L., (1999) Verbal aggression in the college classroom: Perceived instructor use and student affective learning, Communication Studies, 47(1): pp 33

[8] Janes, L.M., Olsen, J.M., (2000), Jeer Pressure: The Behavioral Effects of Observing Ridicule of Others, Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2000; 26; 474

[9] Taylor, M., (1974), Criticism, Witnesses and the Maintenance of Interaction, Social Forces, Uni Sth Caroline Press

[10] Pinto, I.R., Marques, J.M., Levine, J.M., (2010) Membership Status and Subjective Group Dynamics: Who Triggers the Black Sheep Effect?, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,Vol. 99, No. 1, 107–119

[11] Infante, D.A., et al, (1992), Initiating and reciprocating verbal aggression: effects on credibility and credited valid arguments, Communication Studies, 43:3, pp 182-190

[12] Infante, D., Wigley, C.J., (1986), Verbal aggressiveness: An interpersonal model and measure, Communication Quarterly, 39, pp 35-47

[13] Semic B.A., Canary D.J., (1997) Trait argumentativeness, verbal aggressiveness, and minimally rational argument, Communication Quarterly 45(4) pg. 355

[14] Moscovici, S., Zavalloni, M. (1969), The group as a polarizer of attitudes, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 12, pp.125-135

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  1. More like this please :).

    It seems to me that ridicule then should be reserved for special circumstances, where a section/group in the community is behaving dangerously causing measurable harm, and the most effective way of combating their actions is to bring pressure from the larger community to bear on them.

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SeandBlogonaut, SeandBlogonaut, SeandBlogonaut, Warren Bonett, Mike McRae and others. Mike McRae said: An essay on ridicule and outreach: https://tribalscientist.wordpress.com/2010/07/15/a-ridiculous-essay-on-rational-outreach/ [...]

  3. Interesting article. It’s quite a well-reasoned approach. I can really relate to the behaviour of ridicule as practised in high schools.

    It seems to me that you have a belief that logic is what will convince people to change their minds. I think this is rarely the case, unless that person values logic. Usually, I think, people are convinced through emotions. Ultimatelly, even those who do value logic have emotional reasons for valuing logic.

  4. You’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head there, Mike. Emotional reasoning is far more in key with how our brain works – for good or bad. Even those who value logic (and, as you implied, they are a subset of the community) aren’t free of emotional bias.

    Personally, I feel logic and reason are the most democratic way of thinking. However I am aware that others don’t share those values, as they have the right to do. Therefore the rationalist surge of atheism, skepticism, feminism etc. needs to take this into account and learn how to better promote thinking values as opposed to promoting conclusions based on the assumption of logic being a ubiquitous human value.

  5. I’ve never been naive enough to believe that ridiculing someone will change their belief. That’s never the point – the point is to make any observers see how ridiculous the belief is, in order to pre-emptively defend against recruiting by the target of the ridicule.

    For example: antivaxxers aren’t going to change their mind when I point out that they’re idiots. But uninterested observers who might otherwise have found the antivaxxers argument persuasive might. Not if it’s JUST ridicule, obviously, but that would be rare – ridicule is generally delivered as part of the whole package.

    But honestly, a lot of the reason I ridicule is frustration. It’s difficult to live in the 21st century and still be surrounded by adults that believe in fairy tales – ridicule as a defense mechanism to cope? :)

  6. “the point is to make any observers see how ridiculous the belief is, in order to pre-emptively defend against recruiting by the target of the ridicule.”

    Yet the evidence indicates it’s more likely that ridicule has the effect of reducing the perceived validity of the argument. Rather than making something seem more ridiculous, it seems that the nature of the opposing argument is made weaker.

    Ridicule only seems to work if you’re already sympathetic to the values or argument of the mocking party.

    “But honestly, a lot of the reason I ridicule is frustration.”

    Which is, I feel the most honest answer that can be given by any truly rational person. We all get frustrated. Things go pear shaped when there is a post-hoc attempt to justify the argument with poor logic and unsupported assertions.

  7. I think sometimes it’s about perceived benefit, i.e. what benefit will I gain from subscribing to your religion, political party, view of the the world, etc. So I pretty much agree with you that it’s about emotional reasoning, although maybe perceived benefit is rational emotional reasoning : )

  8. The book Freakonomics has a fascinating chapter in it about how the Ku Klux Klan was ridiculed by the Superman radio show.

    Stetson Kennedy was a human rights activist who went undercover in the Ku Klux Klan, learning how they operated, recruited and their secret rituals. He then wrote to the producers of the Superman radio show, offering to write some episodes. Eager for new villians, the produces accepted.

    Kennedy betrayed the Klan as bumbling buffoons, stripping away their mystique, and ridiculing them. Afterwards, the Klan found it difficult to recruit new members, as potential recruits saw through the methods, and couldn’t take the group seriously.

  9. I’ve got a question early on in the piece about the categorizations of intent in communication. I know we’re being simplistic for the sake of argument, but I question whether the intention of changing someone else’s mind is unselfish or not about self-gratification.

    “That leaves us with communication for non-selfish reasons; there is a desire to influence the behaviour of other people.”

    Influencing the behavior of others seems to be a distinctly self-gratifying behavior. Influence is a form of power, as are applied behavioral change and thought reform. If I can get another person to accept my viewpoint, my references, and my ideas, then I win. I get to see myself as influential, and my ideas gain a stronger foothold in the world. I become an effective meme generator.

    I’m wondering if a more precise set of polar communication categories might be pro-social vs. anti-social rather than selfish vs. non-selfish?

    Hah! I’m hijacking your essay. It may look selfish, but I mean for it to be pro-social.

  10. Hehe – hijack away. Discussion benefits us all. :)

    There’s an old philosophical argument about the definitions of ‘selfish’, and whether all behaviour is innately selfish as we are encouraged to be altruistic as it makes us feel good (and the ramifications of being selfish make us feel bad). I think it risks robbing the term ‘selfish’ of all meaning whatsoever, but it is still food for thought.

    Describing them as pro-social and anti-social might work, too. Or perhaps I’m just conceding you have a point because I’m selfish and like the feeling it gives me. :P

  11. But was that a case of ridicule or report? The big attraction of the KKK was the secrecy, while the content was rather plain or childish. Merely reporting that content, or contrast, might be perceived as ridicule, although I assume there were also some actual ridiculization in the Superman broadcast. Does Freakonomics say anything about that?

  12. Oh, that old philosophical argument can take the position of a world-view for some people! It’s a deliciously crippling epistemology, because once you decide that everyone is acting for selfish reasons, you can twist every possible behavior or action to prove your point (selfishly so)!

    I appreciate your measured approach to this controversy, and I love this:

    “In the context of discouraging individual thoughts, encouraging group-think and conformity, ridicule is extremely effective.”

    This can’t be overemphasized enough. Ridicule can provide momentary stress-relief for the overheated and unexamined emotions of the attacker, but it does nothing to communicate the importance of clear thinking. Sadly, ridicule often ends the possibility of a relationship between combatants.

    If the central focus of skepticism is to share the skills of critical thinking, ridicule is right out as an approach. Out, done, finis, out. Proponents of communication and critical thinking skills cannot rely upon battle analogies or heated emotional displays to enforce their views in a haughty and superior way; the movement has to be a long-haul, gradual, respect-based process that gathers not followers, but advocates — because the excellence of its position is clear.

    However, if the central focus is about waging endlessly futile wars and gaining bully pulpits populated by ever-louder and ever-meaner verbal pugilists, then ridicule is an excellent tactic. I will gift it with a Twitter tag right now! #epicfailtactic.

    It’s perplexing to watch the skeptical community argue for the use of a tactic that actually destroys the effectiveness — and is antithetical to the stated goals — of the movement. I mean, it would be perplexing if I didn’t understand the human shadow (I know that Jung is not an acceptable thinker to the skeps, but could we find some way to sanitize his work on the shadow so we don’t have to watch an entire movement waste time spinning out in completely predictable ways?).

    This is an aside, or perhaps not, but eight years ago, when I approached the online and literary skeptical community from my position as a psychic healer, I had to use my specialized people-reading skills to figure out what the heck skeptics were trying to say under all the ridicule, rudeness, rage, and social panic.

    As a psychic, I specialized in working with severely traumatized people, and I developed a theory of emotion that helped me support trauma victims in getting their lives back. I learned to read beneath strong emotional displays in order to figure out what was actually occurring in the trauma survivors who came to me — and fascinatingly, I had to rely heavily upon those exact skills to translate what many of the furious, ridiculing, and highly excitable skeptics were trying to say.

    I think that sometimes, skeptics point to my “conversion” (ugh) as proof that their work translates outside of their enclaves. Um … ahhh … well, the only reason I could understand the intellectual output of the skeptical community is because I can read through extreme emotion displays. Yow!

    Thanks for your work. I can read it without my magic psychic hat on. Huzzah!

  13. This article illustrates exactly why the NAACP’s condemnation of the Tea Party as racist will backfire.

  14. Mike has a point in that by painting them in a weak light (effectively mocking them) they had a harder time recruiting. Using ridicule to discourage a ‘product’ can sometimes be rather effective. Yet this again highlights the difference between process and product. Has fewer members of the KKK really translated into a less racist community, or simply fewer members of the KKK? I’m not saying that isn’t a good thing in its own right, mind you, but when promoting the product takes precedence over promoting a process, I feel rationalists are missing the big picture.

  15. I did get the impression that the KKK was made to look ridiculous and stupid.

    It’s hard to judge a negative, like what would have happened without the radio show. The Ku Klux Klan was a growing force in the South before the show, and stopped being a growing force after the radio show. Since individuals aren’t as likely to be going out lynching and terrorising black people, fewer KKK members is a definite improvement. I’d say that indulging in actions like this would increase the level of racism in society – actions reinforce beliefs, groups reinforce beliefs, and if the movement continued to be popular, perhaps more people would have been converted.

  16. I should add, that there was still a big problem with racism in the States, and there still is. I’m amazed Obama was elected, and it says a lot about his integrity and character.

    I do think that things would be even worse with a strong KKK.

  17. Ah that Karla Maclaren (I have your Bridging the chasm essay on my desk as we speak) – I wonder if TAM organizers would consider asking you to attend to speak on communication and the clash of cultures?

  18. McLaren rather

  19. [...] Svan thanks Randi for being a dick, leading to this post on the use of emotion in rational outreach. I think this supports my oft-made claim that the media are not about reason or information, but [...]

  20. Thanks for your responses, Karla. I had a quick read through your blog (which I’ve added to my blogroll) and now think I have a new book I’ll have to get and read. :)

    On your point of the role of skepticism (or, as I’ve taken to calling the increased discussion on such rational-value ‘isms’, the rationalist surge), I feel the illusion of a single movement is behind much of the friction. I tried to capture some of the diversity in the essay by referring to product and process driven individuals. There is the assertion that ‘it takes all types to promote skepticism’, which is an attitude that troubles me as dismissive of any need to evaluate the methods we employ and the nature of our distinct and shared goals.

  21. [...] “I don't think we should go out of our way to insult Islam because it doesn't do any good to get your head cut off. But we should always say that I may refrain from publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, but it's because I fear you. Don't for one moment think it's because I respect you.” -Richard Dawkins, 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne. Fear can be quite an effective motivator when it comes to silencing your critics. Make peop … Read More [...]

  22. Hello! I’ve asked via e-mail if I can translate and publish this article in Swedish, but I havn’t got any answer yet. Maybe it got stuck in the spam filter? Anyway, you have my e-mail address. Please reply!

  23. Unfortunately I haven’t received it, Devadatta. Feel free to try emailing again at chthonicdreams at hotmail.com. Otherwise, I give you full permission to translate and use, so long as you include a link back to the original article. :)

    Thanks!

  24. Good to hear! There’s no problems including a link here. I’ve sent you a mail again now, let me know if you don’t reciece it.

  25. I work in sales, and we have an old adage that seems to hold true (and appears related to your excellent post): “People buy on emotion, and justify their decision with logic afterwards”.

  26. [...] According to this thoughtful article by Mike McRae (which came to my attention via J. J. Ramsey) A 1992 communications study by a leading researcher [...]

  27. There seem to be a lot of terms thrown here as if they were synonyms. Ridicule / Mockery / Verbal Aggressiveness – And it looks like you are using some vague results of some study to conflate everything together. For e.g. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is satire and mockery but there is nothing aggressive about this mockery.
    How then are these statements valid arguments against this type of mockery?(Unless your case is yes the FSM is a type of verbal aggression)

    “Put simply, the act of seeing others being ridiculed is enough to encourage conformity…”
    “A 1992 communications study by a leading researcher in the field of aggression and communication…”
    “within paired speakers found verbal aggression was inversely associated with the proportion of arguments..”

    And since we were on the topic of evidence, i believe you have summarised it best here

    “No specific study provides us with an insight into how ridicule might effectively address irrational beliefs. The best we can manage is to extrapolate from the small amount of research done in relative fields on similar topics.”

    Thanks , but I believe you can wait for the evidence.

  28. Again, you seem to be commenting from a position of ignorance. Something of a habit, it seems. Ridicule and mockery are forms of verbal aggression (defined rather simply as using spoken words with the intention of causing psychological pain) so it’s hardly a valid criticism. They do indeed have synonymous traits, in that they are used to create a sense of shame, intimidation or embarrassment in an individual, either directly or indirectly. You can attempt to weasel around it by niggling over whether ridicule really causes psychological ‘pain’, however in psychology circles employing the use of ridicule is typically accepted as verbal aggression.

    As to the point on evidence, you’re correct in pointing out that I demonstrate there isn’t a great deal of it, at least according to people I’ve spoken to. Yet given this smattering of studies represent attempts at making a systematic approach to controlling for at least certain variables in looking into the impact of verbal aggression on the perception of an argument, they trump the usual run of anecdotes and blind assertions that dominate the discussion. Indeed, it is possible (as I stated) that there is a way of using ridicule or mockery which is useful in doing more than consolidating the choir. In which case, I’d love to see more than just empty assertions that this is true. Advocates, unfortunately, wish to disparage any possible research that could be done, usually ignorantly claiming that science simply doesn’t have the tools to analyse human behaviour, and surprisingly go on to claim anecdotes serve as all the evidence that they require. Mind boggling, really, especially as these people otherwise seem to support scientific and critical thinking.

    Until those who support the use of ridicule with more than wishful thinking and anecdotes can come up with something more substantial, this serves as a good starting point. Debate is open, of course, but there needs to be more than shrugging and personal stories. However, you’re welcome to continue to preserve your views with special pleading that such studies cannot hope to match the anecdotes of those who dogmatically support the use of ridicule. On the other hand I’ll do my best to look at the evidence a little more critically.

  29. Again, you seem to be commenting from a position of ignorance. Something of a habit, it seems.
    Ooooh. You are mocking me!What verbal aggression! You have now intimidated me. I will now prove your study right and close my mind to anything you have to say. And the fault is yours!
    See how that works? (by the way I explicitly hoped for some sarcasm from you , thanks for obliging)

    however in psychology circles employing the use of ridicule is typically accepted as verbal aggression.
    Perhaps. However the fact of the matter is the FSM is not the same as a P.Z. Myers post is not the same as a John Stewart episode is not the same as Ann Coulters words. if you believe all of the above are verbal aggression and if all of the above will be received similarly or indeed if you believe that the study of one type allows you to extrapolate your results to all of them , then fine, confirm your bias as you wish.

    they trump the usual run of anecdotes and blind assertions that dominate the discussion.
    An anecdote merely proves that ridicule may work given a set of circumstances. for e.g. the vote before and after the Hitchens/Stephen fry debate on the Catholic church shows you that. No one makes an assertion that it works in all cases or even that it works in most cases or even that it is the best approach. An anecdote(like the above) is a data item , provided you can verify its authenticity. What people shouldn’t do when there isn’t data is argue that one approach is better than the other , no?

    I’ll do my best to look at the evidence a little more critically.
    You haven’t demonstrated this. You believe one approach is more favorable though even by your own words there is very little evidence supporting it.

  30. Pointing out that you’re arguing constantly without reading up or getting informed by calling it ignorance is now ‘mockery’ to you? You might not be comfortable with it, and no, I didn’t sugar coat it for you (mistakenly believing you had a slightly thicker skin…my apologies), but it’s hardly ridicule.

    However there is some irony here, indeed. I do notice that even though you read it as ridicule, it had zero impact on your opinion and if anything merely elicted sarcasm in return.

    “if you believe all of the above are verbal aggression and if all of the above will be received similarly or indeed if you believe that the study of one type allows you to extrapolate your results to all of them , then fine, confirm your bias as you wish.”

    Which once again demonstrates you’re not going what is written, but rather what you presume should be there to make your argument work. Which makes me think we’re both wasting our time.

    “An anecdote merely proves that ridicule may work given a set of circumstances.”

    Here’s the problem – ‘work’ relies on context. And as the essay claims clearly, ridicule can work for certain goals. If you share a person’s cultural values, it can create emotional provocation to accept their view non-critically. So, yes, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert (who I happen to love…yet also happen to share their political position) have great appeal. Do they change epistemologies? This is the problem with your anecdotes, however – they fail to distinguish causes and effects. They fail to address variables. They are merely personalised, uncontrolled accounts of the perception of ridicule appearing to do something you already agree with. You conflate goals and confuse correlations and believe it is better than a measured look at definitions and methods. Rather than critically address your own understanding, you skim read, find what seems to support your view, make some ill-informed presumptions and then continue to assert your case based on vague anecdotal evidence.

    “No one makes an assertion that it works in all cases or even that it works in most cases or even that it is the best approach.”

    Advocates of the use of ridicule don’t seem to be interested in knowing how it works, when it works, why it works, in what cases it has a good chance of working or what potential problems arise when it is used, unfortunately. They tend to dismiss any critical evaluation of it as impossible in order to continue to use it. It therefore amounts to placebo communication, no different to how a homeopath defends their decision to use homeopathy. In fact, the approach is identical down to special pleading and an assertion that it can work in some situations.

  31. Pointing out that you’re arguing constantly without reading up or getting informed by calling it ignorance is now ‘mockery’ to you
    It isn’t – you missed the point. I have a much thicker skin no worries.
    But can you call a creationist ignorant ? Can you say ignorance is a habit for a creationist? Is that mockery? What if its Richard Dawkins calling a creationist ignorant? Now is this one more example of ridicule?

    I do notice that even though you read it as ridicule, it had zero impact on your opinion
    And did you notice that even though you thought you were being reasonable and indeed attempted to justify it , it had zero impact too?
    So, yes, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert (who I happen to love…yet also happen to share their political position) have great appeal. Do they change epistemologies
    I don’t know. Do you know that they don’t? I do know that some fence sitters (There are those darn anecdotes again) did crystallize their opinion about Palin for e.g. after watching Tina Fey.
    But you missed the point again. Is John Stewarts Verbal Aggression the same as Ann Coulters or P.Z.Myers or Phil Plaits Dont be a dick? If so then yes we are wasting out time. If not , whats the use making a statement that verbal agression blah blah blah when we dont know what type of Verbal aggression is being spoken about?

    they fail to distinguish causes and effects. They fail to address variables.
    Seriously? I told you this the first time around why the study of why people change their minds might be possible in principle but not possible in practice.

    Secondly I gave you another example. People polled is the catholic church a force for good? before and after a debate. Hitchens was visibly angry and aggressive. Majority now vote that it isnt (and the change is on the undecided). Why do you ignore this data point as if it didnt exist? How is this less valid than any other *controlled* study?

    Here’s one more thought experiment for you.
    Ask Creationists what would take them to believe that evolution is true (or their reasons why they think its untrue). Of the creationists some might say they will never believe anything against scripture , exclude these guys – nothing might change their minds.

    Now some might say well it looks like Atheism is linked to eVolution so it scares them. Some might say if it werent for those darn rude mocking ridiculing pesky New Atheists like Dawkins they might have gone and read about eVolution.
    So far so good?
    Can you use the above as evidence that ridicule /mocking does not work for creationists? (Bear in mind that there are numerous textbooks that discuss eVolution without mocking religion , indeed without mentioning religion)

    Advocates of the use of ridicule don’t seem to be interested in knowing how it works, when it works, why it works
    Sure we are. I told you propose a good experiment and Ill consider it. As of today I dont see it as possible. Given the following assumptions – Real Change is a slow process. Ridicule comes in various forms. It depends who is doing the ridiculing and the setting. There is usually more than a single factor when a person changes a deeply held belief.

  32. “Now is this one more example of ridicule?”

    Again and again you’re demonstrating that you’re simply not informing yourself. I clearly point out that this is about intent, not interpretation. If your intent is to communicate with a view to create psychological pain – to desire shame or embarrassment in a person as a result of your words – it is ridicule. A person can only control their own communication, so viewing it from an interpretive position makes no sense in the context of the discussion. So if Dawkins says a person is ignorant with the intention of making them feel ashamed, then it is ridicule.

    And did you notice that even though you thought you were being reasonable and indeed attempted to justify it , it had zero impact too?

    This borders on a strawman argument, given I have not made the claim that being reasonable would change your opinion where ridicule would not. It’s a false dichotomy. In fact, I don’t think epistemological change arises from single acts of communication. Yet ridicule does make any steady progress in epistemological change more difficult to achieve, it seems.

    Why do you ignore this data point as if it didnt exist? How is this less valid than any other *controlled* study?

    I’m confused. Your main point of contention against using polls, if I recall correctly, is that people lie etc. And yet this is now considered to be a valid data point for you, while contrary research isn’t? To be honest, I’ve not come across it as a study. If you have a link to it, with the questions and an analysis of the method used, I’d be happy to read it. It’s possible that it could show people might be persuaded to express a change in opinion in light of ridicule, however once again that wasn’t really in contention given what I said above about jeer pressure having a consolidating effect on a demographic.
    Can you use the above as evidence that ridicule /mocking does not work for creationists?

    I have no idea what you’re saying here. You’re proposing a hypothetical situation and asking me to evaluate it for a conclusion? I’d rather stick with actual accounts, thanks. And you seem to then go back to insinuating that since evolution in text books doesn’t mock and doesn’t seem to win over creationists, an absence of mockery doesn’t work. Or something.

    I told you propose a good experiment and Ill consider it.

    And with that, I completely rest my case. You’ve concluded that ridicule works, that science is incapable of showing it can’t, and its therefore up to others to show it doesn’t as your anecdotes are acceptable. Substitute ‘homeopathy’ for ‘ridicule in communication’ and it’s a perfect match.

  33. In fairness – we’re talking about a single 1992 study here that may show that ridicule is an ineffective persuader. That is not the same as multiple studies definitively showing homeopathy to be of no more effect than a placebo. Indeed, a single study is barely worth more than an anecdote – see cold fusion for a dramatic example.

    Now possibly the study you refer to is one of several that have indeed been ratified by further studies, but this is not the impression I got from your original post. I am unsure if Deepak is intentionally trolling you – there may be history here of which I am unaware – but it appears that his basic point is not “ridicule is fine” but rather “a single study showing ridicule is not fine is not convincing”. Which is a position it is difficult not to sympathize with, frankly – certainly science trumps anecdotes, but science that suggests our intuitions are incorrect requires more evidence than it would appear is currently available.

    Or to put it another way – it sure SEEMS like ridicule is in many cases a valid mechanism of persuasion. I’m willing to be convinced that it isn’t, but it’s going to take more than a single study. I don’t believe that attitude is particularly unreasonable.

  34. The comparison has more to do with the nature of the argument, rather than the weight of evidence. In both, anecdotes are given substantial weight (i.e, ‘I changed my mind when I was ridiculed, therefore it works’), special pleading is offered (i.e., ‘Science can’t show this to be wrong, therefore it is right’), and there is a shift of burden to those who disagree (i.e., ‘I think it works; it is up to you to demonstrate it doesn’t’).

    The point is not that ridicule does nothing. It is that there is reason to believe ridicule impedes communication when the aim is to promote a change in epistemology, even as it seems to consolidate group beliefs. My intention was to start the ball rolling on looking into what little evidence exists and promote the view that this needs more than anecdotes and assertions to claim ridicule is a suitable choice of communication. Instead, it seems many people are so comfortable with their views, they’re willing to make bold assertions (such as it takes all types to communicate to a diverse audience) without much more than vague references to personal stories. This is deemed to be acceptable on an apriori basis – we believe it to be true, therefore it is up to others to show it false.

    You’re correct in stating that ridicule seems to work. Yet the apparent success stems more from the effects of jeer pressure than from a change in epistemology. We might have more people being less vocal about their beliefs, and some even proclaiming they now see something as ‘ridiculous’, but that is not the same as a conclusion based on critical thinking.

  35. Well I for one certainly am not in any way opposed to studying the phenomenon. And naturally, if the evidence mounts up, I’ll happily and cheerfully change my opinion.

    I believe you’re reading too much into the disagreement here. It isn’t so much a case of “being comfortable with their views” so much as a case of “having no current reason to suppose that their intuitions are incorrect”. This is a perfectly reasonable position to hold. It only becomes unreasonable when we reject outright the possibility that we could be mistaken, or (in extremis) attempt to disrupt or discredit valid research that shows the opposite to be true.

    It is not unreasonable to be skeptical, after all. It is true that a perfectly objective observer should suspend all judgement barring the outcome, but there are two problems with that:

    a) No such observer exists.
    b) There are people to be convinced NOW, that may be in danger from their irrational beliefs, and it would be immoral to wait to persuade them until we know, scientifically, the best approach to such persuasion.

    In such an imperfect situation you rely on intuition formed by experience. It may well be that this intuition leads you to incorrect conclusions. But it can be argued that doing nothing is as bad or worse – at least in some cases. Nobody is saying that nobody should be allowed to (say) write a book that attempts to convince theists to doubt their gods in a completely non-confrontational manner – we’re just saying that it isn’t obviously true that confrontational approaches (The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, etc) are not as good or better ways to achieve that goal.

    The evidence isn’t there yet. Which by all means suggests we should go get some more evidence – but it doesn’t mean that we should stop what we’re doing while we wait for it (within reason of course – nobody is suggesting that atheists start disrupting baptisms).

  36. It isn’t so much a case of “being comfortable with their views” so much as a case of “having no current reason to suppose that their intuitions are incorrect”

    You misunderstand – there isn’t a call for absolute conviction here. But if somebody chooses a particular medium for communication, they obviously believe it will succeed in attaining their goal. There are challenges to the belief that ridicule is a useful form of communication. Even if this is simply based on counter-intuition, it is a critical evaluation of a belief. Yet here I’ve offered a few reasons why ridicule might be antagonistic to certain goals, hoping it might spark an effort into evidence-based, critical discussion. At most I was optimistic that maybe a few people would look at communication as something to support with more than wishful thinking and assertions based on intuition. Instead, there is a continued appeal to continue using ridicule for specious reasons, rather than a search for evidence or a culture change that viewed evaluation of communication measures as a positive thing.

    There are people to be convinced NOW, that may be in danger from their irrational beliefs, and it would be immoral to wait to persuade them until we know, scientifically, the best approach to such persuasion

    Which is all the more reason to know if your communication is effective in changing epistemologies. Yet I suspect few people who use ridicule do so for the reason you cite, to be honest. There seems to be a greater desire to vent outrage and see people feel ashamed for expressing their beliefs rather than truly looking for ways to empower people with good thinking skills. Hence the comparison to a placebo form of communication rather than a culture of evidence-based education.

    “we’re just saying that it isn’t obviously true that confrontational approaches (The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, etc) are not as good or better ways to achieve that goal.”

    And once again I see the word ‘obviously’. Nothing more to back it up, no critical attempt to quantify it or look deeper. Just an assumption that it seems to work, therefore it does.

    I could, of course, be completely wrong. And I have no doubt there are examples of people who changed their epistemology on the back of ridicule. What’s more, having read the God Delusion, it seems there is an incredible attempt to muddy the waters here – while some people were undoubtedly offended, the book is far from an act of ridicule. I find it hard to believe that it was written with the intent of hyperbolising a concept with the intention of making people feel ashamed or embarrassed. I found it to be well written, to be honest. I can’t comment on ‘God is Not Great’, yet I do ask – if you feel it serves as a good example of ridicule – for evidence that it changed more epistemologies than it polarised. We can each cite assertions and anecdotes until the cows come home – I’m asking for something more solid.

  37. Huh? That isn’t what I wrote. I didn’t say I assumed the confrontational books worked – I said that it wasn’t obvious that they didn’t. In other words – the assertion that ridicule doesn’t work is certainly not self evident. I make no stronger claim than that, barring evidence to the contrary.

    So sure, by all means, let’s see the solid evidence one way or another. Until that point, though, I don’t intend to assume that I’m wrong and therefore avoid what I currently perceive to be appropriate uses of ridicule. By the same token, I obviously respect your right to assume that I’m wrong, and to refrain from ridicule – with the understanding that once further data is available, whichever side is supported by the evidence will be recognised.

    But “God Is Not Great” is an example of ridicule on the title alone, as is “The God Delusion”. The former title is chosen as a refutation of the self evident Abrahamic belief that “God Is Great”; the latter on the title alone claims equivalence between belief in a deity and accepted delusional beliefs. It might seem harsh to assert based purely on the title, but in this case not only are some people going to be offended by the titles, but the titles were deliberately chosen to offend in such a fashion. Both make bold statements. Both have interior subject matter that is not discordant with their choice of title.

    Have either served to convince any believers to abandon their belief? I doubt it, but it would be nice to see some data. Have either served to convince neutral parties to adopt atheism as a world view? Seems more probable, but again – it would be nice to see some data. Have either served to convince neutral parties to oppose atheism due to their confrontational/ridicule approach? It is certainly possible, but again – we need to see some data.

    Our disagreement, if we even have a disagreement, is purely on an intuitive basis – I would place my wager that the data would suggest ridicule helps more people than it harms, but I’d be happy to admit that I have no solid evidence to believe that. I’m totally fine with that though – I lack solid evidence for lots of beliefs, but I don’t feel I have to wait for the evidence to come in before making a decision. As long as I’m willing to revisit such decisions and change my mind if necessary I am not sure where such an approach is necessarily harmful – we are not talking about “sticks and stones”, after all.

  38. I didn’t say I assumed the confrontational books worked – I said that it wasn’t obvious that they didn’t.

    My apologies – I mistakenly took your dismissal as support for the alternative.

    Until that point, though, I don’t intend to assume that I’m wrong and therefore avoid what I currently perceive to be appropriate uses of ridicule.

    I don’t think anybody can deny you such a right. I’ve seen this same call a number of times, insinuating that by criticising the action, it is somehow imposing or denying the right to choose. Rather, it is hoped that the decision is supported with sound reasoning and an effort is made to evaluate it with a search for evidence. As you yourself stated, it is important that it works. Yet this importance is not reflected in a desire to be informed more about the process, or to seek better evaluation. Few skeptics devote resources to evaluative procedures following their outreach efforts, citing all manner of absurd excuses. While I’ve cited only a couple of studies, I venture few people have read them or used them to look much further, yet continue to emphasise that there is no evidence, evidence is impossible, or it cannot match anecdotes and intuition on the topic.

    It might seem harsh to assert based purely on the title, but in this case not only are some people going to be offended by the titles, but the titles were deliberately chosen to offend in such a fashion. Both make bold statements.

    Bold, true. But unless you can show me where Dawkins used the title with a deliberate attempt to shame people, I feel it was mostly a blunt, if slightly sensationalist claim. There is a difference – ridicule is hyperbolising to draw attention to what people feel is incongruent with their belief, to make it seem ‘silly’ where it might otherwise not seem so. As I said earlier, I did not find the book to be ridiculing anybody. But Dawkins might admit so elsewhere, in which case I’d ask again for evidence that the ridicule did more good than harm.

    Have either served to convince any believers to abandon their belief? etc.

    I’d go further – have either done so as a direct result of using (allegedly) ridicule? I agree, I can’t say. But if ridicule is to be defended and used willingly, that data is important, as the few studies that do exist on verbal aggression (i.e., the use of language to intentionally make people feel bad about themselves) seem to lean in the direction of it not being useful in changing epistemologies. Again, maybe this is not the case, and the special pleading has merit. But the special pleading is so far based on nothing of substance that can be discussed.

    “…not sure where such an approach is necessarily harmful – we are not talking about “sticks and stones”, after all”

    No, we are talking about the potential for wasted resources, though. These are the same resources skeptics claim to lack when asked about proper evaluation. We’re also talking about the potential of turning people away, which seems counter to your point above about this being important about helping people. This isn’t a mere matter of ethics, although they can come into it. It’s about caring if your choice of communication is effective in meeting your goals. I’ve said numerous times that the evidence I’ve presented isn’t the last word on the topic, but being dismissed as even a first word demonstrates few seem interested in looking any further, and are comfortable with the notion that ridicule does what they assert it should based merely on intuition and anecdote – the very opposite (IMO) of critical thinking.

  39. Yes, I agree that there is every possibility that ridicule is the wrong approach, that it would be very useful to study whether or not this is the case, and that choosing to use ridicule in the absence of such evidence runs the very real risk of turning people away.

    However, what are we to do? After all, it may instead by that avoiding ridicule is the wrong approach, and that choosing not to use it runs the very real risk of turning people away.

    The options seem to be:

    a) Use ridicule in your attempts to persuade.

    b) Don’t use ridicule in your attempts to persuade.

    c) Don’t attempt to persuade.

    All three are valid options. It may even turn out that the best way to “gain converts” is to disengage entirely and follow option c). But I’m not sure what we can derive from this except that we need more study.

    However, you’re not attempting to silence your critics, so I don’t really see that we have any major disagreements here. :)

  40. “After all, it may instead by that avoiding ridicule is the wrong approach, and that choosing not to use it runs the very real risk of turning people away.”

    Interestingly, in this whole debate, I’ve not seen a single person propose that might be the case, and that ridicule is necessary. I’ve seen plenty of anecdotes that it works, a lot of claiming to have the right to use it, much vague assertion of it taking all types of communication to work…but not one person has said NOT using it might risk losing people.

    It is possible, of course. But again, there is evidence here showing that ridicule has the effect of consolidating a group. People will adopt a belief because they associate the alternative with feeling ashamed. They will rightfully claim to now hold a belief because they were ridiculed. How do you distinguish that (given there is evidence it does indeed happen) from a person adopting said belief using a critical epistemology because they were ridiculed (which there is no evidence for)? Both look similar when a person is asked, after all, but the former is still using social thinking strategies.

    You might think it doesn’t matter, so long as they share your belief. All well and good, until they are shamed into a belief you don’t hold. You then hardly have the right to accuse people of not using critical thinking to arrive at a belief if you support the right to use ridicule to convince them.

    As to your trichotomy of choices, c is a sound option for the uninformed, IMO. If you’re relying purely on intuition, don’t communicate. If you wish to engage with the public, get informed. Read up on epistemology and education. Do some research into communication practices. Ask advice from people who do it for a living. You know…think critically about your options and do more than act on a wish and a prayer.

  41. I’m not sure that I’d go quite as far as to propose the idea that ridicule is necessary. Indeed, I doubt that any of the three extremes is appropriate. Human nature is a complex beast; it is highly unlikely that one strategy will prove optimal in all circumstances.

    Rather, I’d simply propose that it was possible that ridicule is more effective overall. I don’t know this is the case, I have no particular reason to assume this is the case, but it cannot be ruled out at this stage.

    And yes, avoiding comment is certainly a viable option. Such an option would lead to certain books not being written. It’s all very well to say “get informed”, but the point here is that there is no consensus to get informed about. About all you can be informed about here is that no consensus exists. What then? Avoid any controversial conversations with believers rather than risk doing the wrong thing?

    It would be difficult to practice such a philosophy, however objectively sound it is.

  42. It’s true that there is no optimal strategy that achieves all goals. Fortunately I’ve not seen anybody suggest that there is or should be. But some strategies work better than others. Some conflict with other goals. And some people don’t have clear goals at all, communicating simply because they feel an emotional need to vent or because they have a sense of wanting to do something but no real direction.

    On one hand, grassroots rationalism is a powerful social group, full of passion for change. On the other, there is more angst than sense. Many want to do something but no idea what or how. Blogging is easy. On a bigger scale, people love sensationalism, and big numbers look like big actions. But in this maelstrom of shouting and egos, it would be good if there was an effort being made to ask what was really happening, and whether success was real or simply an illusion of the choir shouting louder.

    Anyway, onto your point…

    Since when is a consensus necessary to be informed? It’s not like I’m suggesting a PhD in communications. Skeptics pride themselves on seeking and evaluating evidence for all manner of claims. Yet when asked to do it for communications, there are excuses to avoid getting informed. The reasoning against using ridicule for changing epistemology is logically sound and empirically seems to be supported, even if there is room for discussion. It isn’t as empty as you’re insinuating. But that wiggle room does not mean it’s an even playing field where all conclusions are equally valid. The evidence isn’t conclusive but it’s a damn sight more than what has been put forward by those who fear abandoning ridicule might lose more people than it gains. It means discussing on informed terms and evaluating the reasoning rather than claiming that a lack of consensus is an exemption from doing some research.

  43. I’m not sure what else you expect skeptics to do in order to “get informed”. It’s not as if I haven’t read what you’re summarising here – in that sense, I think I am informed. It is simply that what I am informed about is “someone did a study that may indicate X”, not, by any means, that “X is true”.

    I can’t really believe that you are suggesting the existence of a single study means that “all true skeptics” should immediately begin to revise their approach to communication. If you’re suggesting merely that we should consider these repercussions – then fine, it is considered. If the goal is to spark debate, then consider it sparked.

    But if the goal was to get people to stop using ridicule as a communications device – then that goal will need more evidence. That’s all I’m saying.

  44. What I am saying is if an individual actively employs ridicule as a means of communication, they should IMO have more to support their choice of medium than poor reasoning, assertions, intuition and anecdotes. Sure, that might be all they have to go on initially, but these are the same people who prize being informed on a wealth of other topics from medicine to astronomy to the history of all sorts of paranormal beliefs. Add communication to that and it’s like a straw breaking the camel’s back.

    You keep saying there is just the one study, so I’m still not entirely sure what you’re referring to or if you’ve read the essay above. The Infante study is just one I found that supports the fact that third parties view information presented with verbal aggression as less reliable. No, not massive, but it is enough to introduce doubt to any claim that ridicule helps third parties adopt a belief on the grounds of critical thinking. You’re welcome to not be convinced by this, of course, but so far I’ve not had a single person do more than dismiss it out of sight. And again, that’s fine and understandable, but again, if a person would choose to use ridicule with the excuse of converting third parties, I’d hope they have something that demonstrates why the study is wrong and their assertion is right.

    It’s hardly brain surgery, and to be honest I’m still surprised that this seems to have been so controversial. No, you don’t have to do any research at all. But to use ridicule as a communication tool and claim it is doing more than just consolidating the masses, and is actually changing people’s epistemology, conflicts not just with reason, but with the evidence I’ve come across. Disagree by all means. Even claim you don’t have the time or energy to invest into looking into it. That’s fine too. But if you’re going to invest time and effort into outreach, doing so from a position of willful ignorance seems at best to be risking failure in your goals and wasting time, and at worst making other people’s job at communicating with your audience all that much harder.

  45. What I am saying is if an individual actively employs ridicule as a means of communication, they should IMO have more to support their choice of medium
    So similarly a person who doesn’t use ridicule should IMO have more to support of their choice of medium? A person who sugar coats facts or avoids controversial topics should have more to support their choice? Again I agree in principle but I have stated my position is that because of the sheer number of variables and the length of time needed to accurately gauge a persons behavior as well as the multitude of factors that go towards effecting change , such a study isn’t feasible IMO. Again I’ve told you suggest a pragmatic experiment Ill consider it.

    The Infante study is just one I found that supports the fact that third parties view information presented with verbal aggression as less reliable.
    Whats the topic under discussion here?
    Any kind of verbal aggression? Who are these third parties – Who’s conveying the information? Anonymous entities? What does less reliable mean? Surely we aren’t asking people to just swallow what they are told? In how many cases were people motivated to go find out more (this is crucial!)? In how many cases were these deeply held beliefs? In how many cases was there change ? I can go on asking stuff here. This is why the study doesnt convince me , not because it does not appeal to my bias.
    Unfortunately that link doesn’t work for me so I cant read it myself.
    Note also that ridicule is not used in every case by the proponents of it. It is used in specific cases (e.g. Young earth creationists).

  46. “A person who sugar coats facts or avoids controversial topics should have more to support their choice?”

    What does that have to do with anything? I would say that they, too, should be able to supply reason and evidence supporting their choice of medium.

    “Again I agree in principle but I have stated my position is that because of the sheer number of variables and the length of time needed to accurately gauge a persons behavior as well as the multitude of factors that go towards effecting change , such a study isn’t feasible IMO.”

    Here’s the irony – you feel that anecdotes are useful, but anything that attempts to add rigour to the collection of anecdotes to not be. You think assertions will do fine, but if somebody attempts to control for variables on an assertion, suddenly it’s not as useful. Science isn’t a dichotomy of proof versus falsification – it’s a methodology that evaluates supporting reasons.

    I can go on asking stuff here.

    And yet the study is out there for you to read and assess. If you’re not in a position to get your hands on it, you might have asked for it or shown an interest in evaluating it rather than making assumptions. As I said above, nobody is expecting you to do as such, yet you’ve committed yourself to criticising it anyway. My point has been less to convince people that ridicule is useless, but that for you to state it has a use you have an obligation to provide something more than blind assertions.

    “Note also that ridicule is not used in every case by the proponents of it. It is used in specific cases (e.g. Young earth creationists).”

    ‘Proponents’ of ridicule are a rather diverse group for such a generalisation. Nonetheless, this adds nothing to the discussion – so what if it’s only in specific cases? If anything, one would hope that meant they based their discrimination of its usage on some form of reasoning. The most I’ve received in response to such a choice has been that ‘some people are out of reach anyway’, which I addressed in the essay.

  47. but anything that attempts to add rigour to the collection of anecdotes to not be.
    That isnt what I said. Rigor cannot be added at the expense of accuracy.

    And yet the study is out there for you to read and assess
    It isnt . The link isnt clickable nor can I see what it is to copy/paste so I have to go by your summary.
    but that for you to state it has a use you have an obligation to provide something more than blind assertions.
    I can only give you an analogy. As a software engineer there are different process methodologies I can use. Perhaps I have used the iterative model and found that it pretty much works for the projects I have worked on and I know the pros and cons etc etc when to use it when to use something else – these have all been gained by experience. Along comes the new agile model and a person who argues that those who choose a model other than agile really need to back their model with scientific data. I argue back that
    a. Software projects arent that much a science as much an art because there are so many variables
    b. That by the persons own admission there is very little evidence that agile is better
    c. That anecdotally the iterative model has worked for me and now I know some of the contexts in which it works.
    d. That I am not a scientist in the business of proving stuff so if you have a good experiment that demonstrates that agile is better Ill consider it
    That Im not going to consider toy projects implemented by college students as valid experiments
    That enterprise projects differ from Product development and results for one may not hold for the other. That projects with small teams have different dynamics than large teams (and I list every variable that is important to me and say that a study that needs to convince me must have all of the above or that its methodology must convince me of the result)
    e. That the person is free to practice agile if that works for him. Just that he shouldnt keep telling me I need better data or if he does its upto him to prove his assertion with better evidence.
    f. That Im aware there are other methodologies like SCRUM or waterfall or agile each having its own set of pros and cons (knowledge anecdotally gained). That the fact that this knowledge is obtained through scientific experiment doesn’t make it invalid .

    Thats it from me.
    I chose a different field as analogy so that you can eliminate the bias I have for being , in your opinion, pro-ridicule. I have no bias for software methodologies since I consider them irrelevant to the success of a project.

    If you provide me a way to get to the Infante study Ill look at it , and like you already know , it might not make me change my mind.

  48. “That isnt what I said. Rigor cannot be added at the expense of accuracy. “

    The fact you dismiss a study sight-unseen on grounds of being able to possibly contribute anything and yet accept anecdotes as evidence demonstrates otherwise. As for criticising accuracy, again it is done from a position of ignorance on the study and the definitions.

    “It isnt . The link isnt clickable nor can I see what it is to copy/paste so I have to go by your summary”

    I appreciate that unless you have easy access to a university or research organisation, getting your hands on the paper takes more than a quick Google. But that isn’t my point – the point is you’re willing to make critical remarks without demonstrating a willingness to be informed about that which you’re being critical of. That indicates that you’re more interested in preserving your view than challenging it.

    “I can only give you an analogy”

    I have to be honest and say I don’t understand your analogy, finding it a little difficult to read through the typos and cumbersome wording. Of course, I could also be tired. If I understand the gist, it seems that you’ve got a heuristic for determining the usefulness of certain software based on intuition. Most of what you’ve written is again assertive and generalised, or simply hard for me to comprehend, sorry.

    I think we’ve gone as far as we can with this discussion, to be honest. My aim has never been to convince you – or anybody – of ridicule having absolutely no place. It has been to encourage discussion based on evaluating evidence supporting the use of ridicule in communication. What I’ve learned has been eye opening.

    I work in the communications field, and formerly in the education field in science. I constantly hear from people outside of the field about how it’s impossible to apply science to something like human behaviour, even though I routinely use it in my line of work. Oddly I then see the same people use psychology and sociology to argue why paranormal beliefs are bunk, or defer to the placebo effect to explain medicine, or use terminology afforded by cognitive psychology. My argument is that you can’t have it both ways – science is the discussion on the validity of evidence supporting any idea. I’ve moved that discussion onto a field of communication, which obviously is a strange topic to a lot of people used to falsely seeing science being about proof and falsification. By all means, argue the science. Discuss the method used. But to plead that science won’t work there without demonstrating an understanding of what it is you’re criticising is no better than being a woo.

    That is all.

  49. The fact you dismiss a study sight-unseen
    No I dismiss your summary and your extrapolation as indicative of anything definitive.

    the point is you’re willing to make critical remarks without demonstrating a willingness to be informed about that which you’re being critical of.
    So inspite of saying tell me the conditions under which the experiment was carried out or propose an experiment and Ill tell you if I will accept those results – You keep repeating this?
    Ill give you another example. Say there is a IQ test which proves that on the average Indian Students have a higher IQ than American. I then extrapolate this result to say Indians are smarter then American. Valid? Easily the answer should be no the conclusion is invalid – interpreting what an experiment says is not as straightforward as you make it out to be.

    finding it a little difficult to read through the typos and cumbersome wording
    Sorry. It comes from having relied on too many automatic spell checkers.

    I constantly hear from people outside of the field about how it’s impossible to apply science to something like human behaviour
    Uh no. I merely make the case that certain things (like what causes a human to change his mind) are extremely hard to figure out scientifically , in practice (as opposed to in principle) and that they haven’t been done convincingly as far as I know(You admit this too). Therefore both branches for and against ridicule cant claim any scientific evidence.
    Should more work be done? Sure – Do it and let us know.
    And finally put your money where your mouth is – Convince some creationists using the techniques that your study has found are effective and show us.

    I think we’ve gone as far as we can with this discussion
    Finally , agreement. My last post on this topic tempting as it may to be respond to your last words.

  50. “No I dismiss your summary and your extrapolation as indicative of anything definitive.”

    Based on the fact the study can’t possibly be accurate, given by necessity all such studies exchange rigour for accuracy. Yet you claim this without having read the study.

    “So inspite of saying tell me the conditions under which the experiment was carried out or propose an experiment and Ill tell you if I will accept those results – You keep repeating this?”

    This seems to have been a rather backward way of doing things – from the beginning you’ve made critical judgments without attempting to learn more about the topic, and as I’ve pointed this out you’ve insinuated I should be telling you more details. As I said, the point isn’t to convince you my view is the correct view, but that if you’re to have a view it should be informed by more than intuition and anecdotes. In your case, I’ve failed. But given my understanding of epistemology and science literacy, I don’t expect my single discussion to have any real impact on most product-minded skeptics anyway.

    “Uh no. I merely make the case that certain things (like what causes a human to change his mind) are extremely hard to figure out scientifically , in practice (as opposed to in principle) and that they haven’t been done convincingly as far as I know(You admit this too).”

    I admit that in the very specific case of skeptical outreach and ridicule, there hasn’t been a lot of study. I would hope that skeptic groups see sense and devote resources to evaluation in the future, but given it’s one of those things that is always viewed as somebody else’s job, I don’t see it happening.

    I also admit that it’s not like physics or chemistry. But it is far more useful than hearsay and intuition. Where there is a conflict between the two, I will side with the studies that attempt to control for at least some of the variables.

    “And finally put your money where your mouth is – Convince some creationists using the techniques that your study has found are effective and show us.”

    Once again, I never advocated a particular alternative here. I’ve merely suggested that there is reason to suspect ridicule is a flawed approach when it comes to epistemological change, and those flaws don’t seem to be present in approaches that are neutral or accommodating.

    Note that does not equate ‘being nice must work’, given that ‘work’ is an imprecise and vague term than depends solely on the context of the communication. Which is my single biggest problem with this – while I’ve broken down the entire field into more convenient definitions on the goals and processes, the argument keeps returning to simplistic, overgeneralised statements of ‘work’ and ‘not work’, ‘always’ or ‘never’.

    I’d be happy to discuss my views on effective communication strategies later (and, yes, given I’ve worked in religious schools as a science teacher, I do have some views on what is necessary to combat creationism), however it’s not a simple response, and as we’ve agreed, this particular discussion has run its course. This isn’t about single experiments but about understanding the topic beyond generalisations and poor definitions. I’ll endeavour to write an article on my views on epistemology once I’ve finished my book edit in a few weeks.

    Thank you for your patience, though. I appreciate your effort in making your position clearer.

  51. I have to go back on my word because of one thing
    This seems to have been a rather backward way of doing things
    So for human behavioral interactions I must either look up scientific studies that tell me what to do or not have a strong opinion? (e.g. How to manage a team and similar group dynamic questions that arise at work)? Similarly how to court a woman I love needs me to dig up a science study that details the odds on various strategies? – really?

  52. Um, no. It’s backward by being critical of something you aren’t informed about (such as the study) and then asking for more information about it.

    You keep offering rather peculiar analogies that bear no relation to the discussion. The love you feel for a person is by no means the same as claiming a person’s association between ridicule and a change in behaviour is evidence of a generalised, causal relationship.

    There’s no need for an analogy here – it’s straight forward. You’ve not read the study, initially made no indication of wanting to learn more, expressed no understanding of the field, and yet proceeded to be critical…and only then insinuate I should have provided you with more information. That is backward.

  53. @tribalscientist
    Im critical of a summary of the report which I did read – if the summary is inaccurate then the criticisms apply to the summary, if the summary is accurate then the criticisms apply.
    Im critical of a type of study that is performed (which may or may not apply in this case).

    You keep offering rather peculiar analogies
    Uhh no you said human behavioral studies (of which the verbal aggression is only one part). My peculiar analogies are meant to indicate that other human behavioral aspects like love / group dynamics don’t have people looking up scientific studies. You wouldn’t consider that behavior ‘backward’ so why apply it to this case?

  54. And yet your criticism was based on the premise that such studies could not be relevant given that I had ‘presumed’ that verbal aggression applied to behaviours such as ridicule. You then continued, stating that ANY such studies were inherently flawed given human behaviour can’t be studied, making anecdotes as useful (if not more so) in this context. Odd how I made that ‘presumption’ after reading the study and being a little more widely read in the field in general, and you made the criticism without reading the study at all or without being informed by the field in general. Hence, it is backwards.

    “My peculiar analogies are meant to indicate that other human behavioral aspects like love / group dynamics don’t have people looking up scientific studies.”

    Group dynamics does indeed. Quite often, in fact, especially when it comes to marketing, political campaigning, classroom management etc. Love is a very broad topic. If you made a generalised claim about relationships and somebody disagreed on the basis of a study, your anecdotes would be insufficient evidence.

  55. @tribalscientist
    that I had ‘presumed’ that verbal aggression applied to behaviours such as ridicule
    You have said so. Are you now saying ridicule is not verbal aggression?

    ANY such studies were inherently flawed given human behaviour can’t be studied
    ANY that i knew off. I kept saying tell me an experiment and I would tell you if I accept it – Inspite of saying that you work in the field you haven’t yet mentioned one? I dont see why I must accept interpretations. I gave you an example. An IQ test gives you a number for a persons IQ. If someone wants to use that to conclude something about intelligence then I dont accept it. Do you think that’s so wrong?

    I specifically told you I discount multi options surveys for human behavioral aspects (and these are quoted quite often). If the Infante study was something else , obviously that criticism doesnt apply , but since you later admit that it doesnt much deal with ridicule Im confused what your point actually is.

    If you made a generalised claim about relationships and somebody disagreed on the basis of a study
    But I didnt – Since I’ve always maintained ridicule works in specific contexts. You however say that attitude is backwards.

  56. “You have said so. Are you now saying ridicule is not verbal aggression? “

    I maintain that it is. It is you who disagreed without knowing anything about the topic.

    “ANY that i knew off. I kept saying tell me an experiment and I would tell you if I accept it – Inspite of saying that you work in the field you haven’t yet mentioned one?”

    This is where I feel we go into territory where there is little point in continuing. Obviously by citing the study, I must have felt it was evidence that highlighted a flaw in the assumption that ridicule was a useful way of communicating a belief to third parties.

    This is the study (I assume…there are several studies there citing various aspects of how verbal aggression affects discussion, yet you’ve said ‘a study’ so I have assumed you’ve meant the Infante one) you’ve criticised as not supporting my conclusion. You then say you shouldn’t accept interpretations. That’s fine, but at no point did you seek to be informed beyond your assumptions, until it was pointed out to you that this was what you were doing.

    This has gone from a discussion of mere ignorance to one of abject dishonesty now. The former I am always willing to continue, and feel I have been patient pursuing; the latter is pointless and a waste of time.

    “but since you later admit that it doesnt much deal with ridicule”

    I said it does not deal specifically with ridicule in skepticism. It deals with verbal aggression – the act of using language to cause emotional pain, which includes things like shame, intimidation, etc. I’ve also said I have no reason to see why there should be special pleading in the specific case of skepticism, yet am open to reason. None has come forth.

    “Since I’ve always maintained ridicule works in specific contexts”

    So? So have I – read the essay. If you’re still barking up this tree, you’ve missed the entire point, and I’ve clearly wasted a lot of time presuming you weren’t a troll.

  57. I maintain that it is.
    Right so I believe Dawkins said something to the effect that if you believe the age of the earth is 6000 years its the same as believing NewYork is right next door to SF. This is mocking a viewpoint- If you say this is the same as you calling me ignorant which is the same as verbal aggression then I guess , yes there is no point.
    So have I – read the essay. If you’re still barking up this tree,
    I never said you didn’t. You were accusing me of generalizing the use of ridicule where I have made no such statement.

    And I’ve clearly wasted a lot of time presuming you weren’t a troll.
    Thereby brilliantly illustrating how people like you cant ever practice what they preach.

    And that really will be it from me.

  58. I was recently in a debate on the diplomacy issue for the skeptical movement. My opponent referenced “informal social control” theory and I was wondering if that was equivalent to the “jeer pressure” you’ve elaborated on here.

    I appreciated this essay. It was very helpful to me in my research and presentation.

    Ben

  59. Hi Ben,

    Glad you found it useful. As I understand it, jeer pressure is used in a specific situation here by a few researchers studying the impact of open ridicule on conformity. However, I don’t think I’d be remiss if I personally stated that I think it can be understood in terms of informal social control theory. In fact, although I can’t claim to be an expert in either topic, from what I have read I think this theory explains the results of jeer pressure quite well.

  60. So in most contexts where the skeptical movement has issues, more often than not we’re dealing with trying to cross steep ideological divides. Jeer pressure and informal social control theory do not appear to outrank diplomacy which concentrates on establishing the common ground that is explicitly missing from the alternative methodology.

    I basically said that in the debate, fortunately, but I was not familiar enough with the “informal social control theory” to directly lump that in. We have a follow up group discussion on the debate coming up in two weeks, so no worries.

    It would be nice to have a comprehensive manual of tactics and when and what contexts they actually work and when they are typically abused. I think we’re on the same page there with the further research to clarify issues.

  61. Absolutely. I can’t and don’t pretend to understand what will and won’t work in any given situation, but I do think there are gambles that have a greater chance to pay off in a given context. Knowing your explicit goals, having clear performance indicators (observations that will tell you your efforts are successful in reaching those goals) and finding ways to control for confounding variables that might mislead how you interpret your observations aren’t shocking new things, especially to skeptics. Yet they are strangely absent from a great deal of science and skeptical communication.

  62. [...] Mike McRae Tribal Scientist: A Ridiculous Essay on Rational Outreach [...]

  63. [...] potentially isolating individuals who might otherwise be reached by a less aggressive approach. https://tribalscientist.wordpress.com…onal-outreach/ <—note the reference links at bottom of article. __________________ "I am convinced [...]


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